A Muslim’s American holiday: My Thanksgivings

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SHAFAQNA – Americans enter Thanksgiving week at a time of intense polarization. We are retreating into our fragmented identities — religious, ethnic, political and other.

The FBI reported a rise in hate crimes last year. Migrants around the country are wondering if their undocumented status will result in deportation.

Yet in the midst of all this fear and fear-mongering, as an observing Muslim, I find much for which to be grateful.

The remarkable religious freedoms the United States of America grants Muslims like me can be attributed in large part to Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father, one of the framers of the Constitution and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

While himself a religious skeptic and harsh critic of all monotheisms including Islam, Jefferson not only had a Koran in his library, but referred to it to study the beliefs of Muslims in order to shape the New World’s religious freedoms. Thinking of an imaginary Muslim American, Jefferson secured religious freedoms — the same freedoms 3.3 million Muslims, no longer imaginary, enjoy across the nation today.

It is 24 years since my first Thanksgiving. In these decades I have been a welcome guest as a British Muslim to this uniquely American holiday — one that has no true counterpart in the world. Surrounded more often by friends than by family, Thanksgiving will once again contain meaning and memory.

On American soil, I have celebrated Thanksgiving with American Muslims, American Jews, American Christians and American atheists. Often we find ourselves at the same table.

We Americans (and wannabe Americans) come from all nations. My first Thanksgivings, in Staten Island, were spent with Italian Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans, Indian Americans, Filipino Americans and Pakistani Americans.

In later years, I celebrated with Polish Americans in Long Island and Greek Americans in New Jersey. In Troy, Mich., I celebrated with my Arab-American, Muslim-American family. In New York, I celebrated with Israeli-American friends.

Imagine the spreads I was privileged to sample: Italian cookies, Irish soda breads, basmati pilau, masala dosa, vasilopita cake (I never found the coin), pancit, pierogis, champ, tandoori lamb, strudel and more.

In South Carolina, I cautiously picked at a turducken as I celebrated with Charlestonians settled here long before the Civil War. In New York City, I celebrated with Iranian Americans over tahdig and Syrian Americans over tabouleh.

With Presbyterians, I said Grace over pot de creme. With Pentecostals I broke bread. With Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Jews alike I shared the meal of our forebears.

Some years I have found myself hosted by gay Americans and lesbian Americans in their respectful, rich and sacred community.

And in the midst of the melee that is our remarkable country, at the center has always been an American turkey, at the mercy of any number of cuisines. This is the eclectic, peripatetic pandemonium that defines our beloved American journey.

Now that I review nearly a quarter of a century of Thanksgivings — nearly half my life — I can reflect upon what I’ve learned. At every table, in every home, at every Thanksgiving whether grand or humble, whether store-bought or homemade, America was taking me gently by her generous hand and whispering into my core, “E Pluribus Unum” — from many, one.

On this Thanksgiving, let us each remember that. At a time when our nation is divided and frightened, there is still nowhere as a Muslim I am not welcome. There is nowhere in the world where a Muslim is more religiously and democratically free. That is true even today, as many wring their hands about a resurgence of white nationalism and other forms of angry ethnic pride.

I suppose I actually absorbed this idea decades before Judge John Gleeson swore me in as a U.S. citizen at federal court in Brooklyn last year. But by the time I got my documents and squinted at them in the morning sun that December day, I realized, through all her mystery and all her magic, through all the goodness of dozens of American families, through the remarkably prescient imagination of Jefferson who more than 200 years ago had no less imagined me, I had been made a citizen not only of document but of substance: the values of Americans had become mine.

So this year, with all these Thanksgivings behind me, I find I am finally home, at home in the nation that is now mine as she is yours, a nation that confirms as she affirms: “You, a Muslim woman, are home, and you belong with me.”

On this Thanksgiving, God bless America. And because America is you, God bless you.

By Qanta Ahmed

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